The US Interview: Kenneth Branagh

US magazine, November 1994
by David Hochman

Playing Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein, Britain's classiest export flexes his artistic muscle and makes a monster out of Robert De Niro. As a career move for Kenneth Branagh, it could be just what the doctor ordered.

Cataclysmic destruction! Terror loosed upon a startled world! It is more than Kenneth Branagh can bear, which probably explains why he can't stop laughing. Inside an antiseptic video room at Shepperton Studios, an hour west of London, Branagh is amusing himself with trailers from classic Frankenstein films. There's Bride of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter. It's a grotesque parade of lumbering behemoths with glued-on scars. "There's that same traveling mob again," Branagh says, as torchbearers storm yet another fog-enshrouded castle onscreen. "I think they march from one movie to another."

Branagh can joke all he wants these days. After laboring for two years on his own creature feature, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, he is finally ready to emerge from the lab. "I really have no idea whatsoever what I'm going to do next," he says. "And that feels just fine."

One possibility is to spend some time with his wife of five years, Emma Thompson. Together they have become heroes for the thinking class -- more highminded than Burton and Taylor, sexier than Cronyn and Tandy. They live together in an unpretentious house in north London (across the street from Thompson's mother), but Branagh's thousand-pound monster has been foiling domestic affairs for months. "It's tough," Branagh admits. "We get a lot of take-aways."

Don't let him kid you -- he's used to it. Frankenstein is the fifth movie in a row Branagh's directed and starred in, after Henry V, Dead Again, Peter's Friends and Much Ado About Nothing. Before that, he was doing nightly performances of Hamlet and Henry V, first at the Royal Shakespeare Company and later at the Renaissance Theatre Company, which he co-founded. In between soliloquies, he cobbled together two plays and even an autobiography. All before he was 30.

Almost 34, he seems to be at the top of his game, weighed down only by the superlatives his colleagues heap upon him. "He's a cross between Steven Spielberg, Orson Welles, and Francis Ford Coppola," says Frankenstein producer Jim Hart. "There's nobody else like him." "He's the best thing to happen to the British film industry," says British actor Brain Blessed, who was the best man at Branagh's wedding. "He is unstoppable, utterly unstoppable," says Hugh Crutwell, Branagh's former principal at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. And Sir John Gielgud, no slouch himself, says, "I salute [his] great talents with enthusiastic pleasure."

Can this son of working-class Protestant Irish parents, born and reared in Belfast, possibly be the savior of British entertainment? Branagh doesn't look the part when he walks into the room at Shepperton. Dressed in mud-splattered gray jeans and a wrinkled gray shirt, with a grayish pallor to match, he looks more like the fish-and-chips delivery guy. But once he opens his mouth, the king begins to roar. He has the kind of mellifluous British accent (he lost his Irish brogue after his family moved to England when he was nine) that would have made Shakespeare write longer sentences. "With an instrument like that," Pauline Kael gushed over Branagh's voice in The New Yorker, "he can play anything."

Of course, not everybody sees it that way. The British press tends to portray Branagh (pronounced Brana--the g is silent) as overly publicized, overly successful and overly young. His marriage to Emma Thompson only makes the media more malicious. (Her films and her TV comedy show there have made her an even bigger star in England than he is, and ever since their lavish wedding, "Ken and Em" have been depicted as socialite "luvvies" who call everyone "dahling.") Friends are quick to defend him. "That's surely just a jealous reaction," says Blessed. "The British can't stand successful young people."

The Ken Branagh who sits down for this interview in a tiny office at Shepperton Studios seems far from the uppity self-promoter described in the British tabloids. If anything, he is like a somewhat self-effacing regular guy who still can't get over seeing his name in lights next to Robert De Niro's. And as he sits on the couch, watching one Frankenstein film after another, it doesn't seem to matter to him whether it's luck or talent that's taken him this far in his career. He just loves what he does.

What drew you to this monster?

The story continues to amaze me. As well as being a true Gothic scare, it's also about life and death and birth and the meaning of all those things.

So who's scarier: Frankenstein's monster or Robert De Niro?

In some respects, Robert was. I think he's a great, great actor, and I was truly intimidated by his extraordinary body of work. I didn't know what he'd think of me or if he even knew who I was. And him being him, he checked everything out on me. He asked people, he watched my work.

But you passed!

Yeah! [Laughs] It was like going through a long courtship. And I'd say with Bob, once you're in, you're in. He's a friend for life.

I heard there was a lot of cutting up on the set.

One of the funniest moments was the scene in which the Creature is born. He's born naked, and he's sort of cooked in amniotic fluid in this womblike sarcophagus, which has been fertilized by electric eels. He's been riddled with acupuncture needles and a whole series of things that have brought him to life, and he's just been tipped out of this thing. And I'm there, almost naked myself, and [DeNiro and I] have this kind of wrestling match as I try and get him to his feet. Now, taking the place of this amniotic fluid was about a ton of K-Y jelly. It's pretty amusing to be rolling around in a ton of K-Y jelly with four cameras and Robert De Niro. He's yelling [perfect De Niro impression]: "Don't get the K-Y up my ass! Don't do that, for fuck's sake!" By the time we finished it, we each had a mouthful of K-Y and a lot of rubber eels flopping around, hitting us in the eyes. We really had the case of the giggles. De Niro's a terrible giggler. Terrible giggler.

Shepperton feels very far removed from Hollywood. Are you intentionally keeping some distance from the whole LA scene?

I think so, yeah. I enjoyed working in Hollywood making Dead Again. I spent the best part of a year there, and it was very exciting. But it's just not home. I'm a northern European, so I'd always rather be here.

One would think that part of the payoff of living away from LA would be more privacy, but that doesn't appear to be the case for you and Emma--at least at home. How do you explain the negative press you've gotten?

I don't really know. Our media continues to be a wee bit strange, but I think it's just part of what happens. There is some degree of what I call "setting up and knocking down," meaning that it's particularly British to resent people who appear to be successful in a sort of overblown way.

It's got to be compounded by the fact that you're in a particularly famous relationship.

I definitely think it is. People certainly have more material to dig into. But it's understandable, and I accept it as part of the territory. People are curious, I imagine.

I am. Let me ask a few questions about your domestic life with Emma. Who cooks?

Well, it's tough, and, you know, we've been working quite hard, so we get a lot of take-aways. I get the take-aways.

Who drives when you drive together?

I drive. She's not crazy about driving. I quite enjoy driving.

Who controls the remote?

It goes from hand to hand. [laughs]

So, with two booming careers, how much time do you get to spend together?

It depends. After we finished Dead Again, we went off and had about three or four months, just kicking around. When we're not working, we have quite a lot of time. And for the last six months, we're both been working here, so we go to work and then spend the normal time together in the evenings and the weekends. And when [Frankenstein] finishes, we'll go on holiday. Thank God. We've had the luxury of working together as well. I mean, this is the film we haven't worked together on, although Emma's done five pictures now without me. But mine take much longer to do, because I'm directing them. During pre-production and before Christmas, she was here as well, so we were leading actually quite a normal domestic life, in fact.

What's a normal, domestic Sunday like?

Usually up late. A bit of roaming about. We don't read the papers [laughs]. There aren't many normal Sundays, actually. Maybe the folks will come up, or we'll watch a bit of a vid, or we'll go to the pictures. I like to go to the pictures in the afternoon, sort of teatime-ish, about five-ish, and then have a nice meal afterward, where we can chat about it. That's a good day for us.

You can go to the movies together and not be bothered?

Sure, yeah. Not much of that goes on, actually. You can get so paranoid as to invite it on yourself, or you can just shove a hat on. But on the whole, I find the nation is not waking up thinking, God, I wonder if I'll bump into Kenneth Branagh today [laughs].

Last year in 'US', Emma described you as "walnutty", meaning you're hard to crack and you're sort of suspicious. Would you say that's accurate?

I think it's just a defense mechanism against being hurt, you know? I think it's particularly the case with people who are essentially huge softies. They're trying to develop some kind of way of not being quite so vulnerable, which is perhaps their natural disposition. And I think [softly] there's quite a large softy inside me. [Laughs] Inside that walnut.

I must clear up a mystery. In your autobiography, you sort of hint at the fact that your relationship with Emma was consummated at Disneyland. Is that true?

No, no, no, no, no. Not exactly. We did consummate it around the time our trip to Disney happened. But I refuse to say it was the magic of Mickey and Minnie that did it [laughs].

Do you think you'll have little Branaghs?

Yeah, I think so. It just hasn't come up yet, really. We've been working away. But that's one of those things that you get superstitious about. It would certainly be nice to have kids [his voice grows quiet, weary].

Two actors living together must cause some degree of rivalry. Is competition a factor in your relationship?

There's no rivalry. [Laughs]. No. I've always been very proud of Em and what she's done. She's really a great artist, and you can't really be jealous of somebody with all that talent. But I'm just not a jealous person, on the whole.

You seem uncomfortable talking about all of this.

[Quietly, wearily] Well, as you can tell, I'm never crazy talking about it, just because it's private, and I'm sort of superstitious really about talking about anything that's as mysterious as how people get on or why they get on.

But it must be hard to be in such a public relationship.

Well, I try for us not to be. I mean, that's why on the whole I don't particularly talk about it anymore than as it tangentially interests people who are interested in the work, which I do understand it does. It is an unusual situation, but one of the reasons so far that it works is that we kind of keep it to ourselves. I've resisted attempts to make us into something we're not, which I think has rather frustrated the press in this country. They're forced to make us into some kind of media couple or some golden couple. But it's just not gonna happen. And so, that's that.

Well, let me ask you a question about the work. I know you pushed hard to get Helena Bonham Carter in Frankenstein. IS there any reason you didn't have Emma star in the movie?

It just felt right doing this one with another actress. It seemed to us absurd that Em must always be in everything. It didn't feel like the right kind of role for her. And then it was a question of who might be right. And in the end it was Helena.

One last question on these quasi-domestic topics. I've heard rumors about where you keep Emma's Academy Award [for Howards End]. Can you tell me for the record?

Oh, she would happily tell you. She keeps it in the loo, the downstairs loo, on a cistern. [Laughs] I hope that doesn't contravene any Academy Award regulations. I know they're terribly strict about all that kind of stuff. I promise it's kept very shiny and lovely. But it's fine because anybody who comes in our house usually wants to have a look at it. So, it's very handy, very handy [laughs]. I just hope they wash their hands before picking it up [laughs].

So, prying, critical press aside, living in London doesn't seem to have hurt you at all professionally: You're still able to collaborate with the biggest names in the industry. De Niro, Coppola, Denzel Washington, Keanu Reeves. Is it hard to do from here?

Actually, I still haven't quite taken in the fact that I'm in a movie with Robert De Niro. But that's also what's great about being here. You never lose your sense of wonder. Once you start working with people like De Niro and Coppola, they become just people you work with. It's only when you step back from it, or you suddenly get a poster sent to you to approve, and it says, ROBERT DE NIRO AND KENNETH BRANAGH that you say "Fuck! It's me!"

It seems like you've done every genre of movie except for documentary -- comedy, Shakespeare, drama, film noir and now horror. Are you testing yourself in as many different areas or did it just work out that way?

Well, it's a bit of both. I'm interested in all sorts of movies. When I was in Belfast from about ages seven to nine, my dad was in England, and Mum was working a lot, and I was left on my own to watch television. It seemed I would watch for hours. Lost at Sea, Hopalong Cassidy, thrillers, B horrors -- I would watch everything. That's when I started a love affair with Hollywood that will never go away.

What was the strangest role that you've ever been offered?

I was asked to play a centipede yesterday. It was a voice-over for a cartoon. Actually, I'd like to be offered a few more strange things. I get offered all the royal parts. Period things. Kings! Endless kings! Or anything with a robe. [In a Hollywood-agent voice]: "We've got this great 15th century story about a monk, and there's a king in it and..." Oh, Christ! [Laughs] Anything that brings an alleged sort of weight to it.

Do you ever say to yourself, God, I'd love to have been Forrest Gump or done Jack Nicholson's role in 'Wolf'?

I like the idea of Speed. Just the basic idea of a bus that can't travel below 50 miles an hour. God, what a fun idea that would be.

Is there anyone left to work with?

Well, of course. I'd like to work with Hugh Grant--in fact, we were talking about the possibility the other day. Scorcese I'd like to work with. And Oliver Stone. I'd like to see both those boys at work. I also think Sally Potter does a wonderful job in Orlando. I know it sounds strange, coming from me, but at the moment I have no ambitions at all.

Is this the first time in your life that you've felt like this?

Yeah, and it's really a pleasant sensation.

If you had to pick one line from all of Shakespeare that you'd have engraved on the proverbial mantel above your fireplace, what would it be?

I think it's hard to pick just one, but there's a line in Hamlet -- he comes back from England, knowing that what he faces may lead to death. And he says: "There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all."

How does that translate into your own life?

You've got to be ready for whatever happens. You can't live in some crazy future that doesn't exist. It's just here, now.

And who taught you that? Did that come from your parents?

Well, it's pretty typical Irish Protestant, being slightly suspicious of the world. But, yeah, my parents have always been clear that money or success or fame is irrelevant to personal happiness. And the basic understanding of the fact that there are many situations out there that might make you happy. And as long as I was happy, it's all right. That has always been their philosophy.

How has your success changed their lives?

[Laughs] I think it's filled them with a kind of pride. I mean, the name is a little more familiar now. And people will say, "Are you any relation to--" and they get a bit of a kick out of that, but we don't talk about it much. It's part of their personality not to inflate my head.

You've talked before about a conflict: having been born in Ireland and growing up in England. Do you still feel Irish?

I do, more and more, I think. It's coming out in the work more. I'm beginning to see distinctions. I'm beginning to see why I do certain things some ways. There's a kind of restless energy, a kind of nervous passion, that's Irish. It's in the camera work of Frankenstein. You see it a bit in Much Ado. It's a feverish thing, which is not English. It's really about saying, "I don't care if others people think this is horribly stupid, I'm just gonna do it."

Was that part of your thinking when you wrote to Laurence Olivier for advice on Shakespeare or called on Prince Charles to help you understand how to play a king?

Yes, I think that's sort of the Irish "nothing ventured, nothing gained" spirit. [In the case of Olivier] I thought, He doesn't have to answer, but it'd be a trip if he did write back. I wasn't remotely expecting he would, and it was very sweet when he did. [Olivier's sublime advice: "I don't think you can go very wrong, basically, as the author has it all there for you."] And in the case of Prince Charles, I was just preparing to play Henry and thought, God, this whole isolation thing that they go through, it's so unusual. And none of us knows what it's like to have every single stranger you meet treat you differently because of who you are. And so I met with a friend of a friend of the prince, and they checked me out, and I went and met him.

Other actors visit police stations to prepare for parts, you go to Buckingham Palace--that's great. Now, I'd like to ask a few random questions, if I may. What can you do that nobody else in the world can do?

I can sing "Danny Boy" in four different keys simultaneously. But that's only if I'm badly, badly drunk. If you don't start in the right key, there's a bit in the middle that goes too high, so you're fucked.

I read in the autobiography that you wanted to host a chat show when you were around 13. So here's your chance: Who are your dream guests?

I had the chance to interview De Niro [for the movie], and that was great. I asked him who his heroes are, and he said, "Greta Garbo", which was a surprise to me. So, De Niro, Hitler, D.H. Lawrence and Margaret Thatcher. Maybe Shakespeare's wife, too. I think they'd be good company.

What about more Shakespeare? Any plans?

I hope so. I'd really like to make a film of Hamlet. I know that's not a particularly original thought from me, but I'd like to do it. If I do, it'd be the full-length version -- four hours. We'll go out and find the two or three people who want to see it.

Who's the most underrated actor today?

Well, I think a cliched response would be Jeff Bridges, because he continues to be underrated. A year ago, I'd have said Tommy Lee Jones, but I like comedic actors. Bruno Kirby. I'd say Bruno Kirby.

Here's a question from our annual Readers Poll: Who would you cast in a remake of Casablanca?

Harrison Ford.

And for the woman?

For the woman? Lena Olin.

On a more serious note, what do you need to do before the end?

That's a hard one. One selfish thing that comes to mind is that I'd love to learn to not be so hard on myself. I'd love to lose the sense of unworthiness that most people seem to have and that I have. Because if I did that, it would be a great service to everyone who knows me [laughs].

Does that mean you never feel like you've done it right?

More as a person that as an artist--though I think it's all mingled into the same thing, really. I come back to the idea in Shakespeare that their journeys are about accepting their fallibilities, accepting their own imperfections, about learning to love themselves in some way.

What's Frankenstein going to do for your career? Is it going to make you more of a household name in Iowa?

Well, if I was worried about being a household name in Iowa, I think this would probably be the picture. I'm aware that there's a lot of money behind it -- it's opening on a lot of screens. And if it does well, then it will open on more, and many more people will want to see it than anything else I've done. Of course there could be huge disadvantages to that if I suddenly did get catapulted into a different kind of life. But I think, regardless, it could give me some more choices. But I'll deal with my popularity in Des Moines if it arrives.

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